The Penguins have enjoyed a remarkably unmarred season thus far in the 2009-10 campaign. The team has the best record in the National Hockey League at 8-1 and tied for its second-best start in franchise history.
But in the harsh and unforgiving world of professional sports, no one expected the team’s fortuity to remain in a state of perpetuity.
That became evident Wednesday afternoon with the announcement that veteran defenseman and locker room leader Sergei Gonchar will miss four to six weeks after breaking his left wrist in Pittsburgh’s 5-1 victory over St. Louis Tuesday night.
Pittsburgh will no doubt miss a player with Gonchar’s talent and skill level, but if history has taught us anything about this generation of Penguins, it’s that nothing – not even an injury – will deter the team.
After all dealing with injuries, and particularly injuries to key players, is nothing new for Pittsburgh.
In the last two seasons, the Penguins have lost 556-man games to injury and overcame extended absences of such players as captain Sidney Crosby
(32 games), Gonchar (60), Marc-Andre Fleury
(40), Gary Roberts (43), Ryan Whitney (39), Max Talbot (34 and counting), Tyler Kennedy
(24), Ruslan Fedotenko (15) and Hal Gill (13).
While missing those key contributors the last two seasons, Pittsburgh still managed to earn two berths in the Stanley Cup Final and took home the coveted hardware last season.
Each time a player went down, the Penguins organizational depth really shined. Whether it was Alex Goligoski filling in last year for Gonchar and Whitney, or Ty Conklin’s magical run in Fleury’s absence during the 2007-08 season. The Penguins have proven time and again that they are not a team that relies solely on one player.
This year’s team has already proven to be built around the whole unit and not any individual. The Penguins have displayed incredible balance and depth in their early season success. The Penguins won eight of their first nine games thanks to contributions throughout the lineup.
There has been a different hero each night for Pittsburgh, whether it was Fleury, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
, Kennedy, Goligoski, Jordan Staal
, the power play, the penalty killing, the transition game, etc. The Penguins have unapologetically rolled four lines and three defensive pairs with regularity and forced opponent’s to deal with their depth.
Even players with smaller roles – like Mike Rupp, Eric Godard and Jay McKee – have stepped up in critical situations for the Penguins.
Add all those pieces together and the result is the second-best start in franchise history and a blue print for success.
So missing one player, even Gonchar, will not derail the team’s early momentum. If anything, overcoming the loss will make the team stronger.
Players like Kris Letang
and Goligoski will handle bigger and expanded roles and that will allow them to grow and mature as players. And when Gonchar finally returns, Pittsburgh’s depth and experience will be even greater than before his departure.
Over the last few years the Penguins have developed a steely resolve when facing adversity. They excel in such situations and raise their already high level of play to transcendent heights.
No one will deny that losing Gonchar is a blow to the team. His presence will be missed in the locker room, in team meetings and, most of all, on the ice. But the Penguins haven’t blinked in the past when facing extremely adverse situations. So don’t expect it to happen this time around either.